One of the benefits of an ever more interconnected world is the opportunity to find new things you never even knew you wanted to try. While Japanese sake is a familiar drink to most people today, Korean soju is relatively new to American audiences.
Though they may resemble each other, soju is not the same as sake. We’ll walk you through the differences between them and help you learn a little more about these two delicious drinks.
4 Differences Between Sake and Soju
Sake and soju — two clear, clean-tasting rice alcoholic beverages — may seem somewhat similar to the newly initiated. However, if you dive a little deeper, you’ll quickly see that these two have far more differences than commonalities.
Flavor is one of the first considerations when choosing a sipping alcohol like sake or soju. When both drinks are equal in quality, which tastes better will largely depend on personal preferences.
Sake often has a mild fruity or floral scent and a light, refreshing taste. While it tends toward dryness, its various grades and categories offer flavors ranging from sweet to salty, umami to sour.
Though it’s often sweeter than sake, soju has a smooth, light, neutral flavor. Its strong alcoholic scent has given it the nickname “Korean vodka.” Like vodka, soju is also available in flavored varieties.
2. Alcohol Content
Another notable difference between sake versus soju is alcohol content. Most sake has an alcohol content of 18% to 20%. On the other hand, soju’s alcohol content has a much broader range of 15% to over 50%. Despite having a higher starting point, most sake is not stronger than soju.
3. Base Ingredients
The base starches for sake and soju play a significant role in their flavor. Sake begins with rice — specifically, varieties low in fat and protein, which can add unwanted flavors to the finished product. While soju also often uses rice, it can also begin with other starch sources. You can find soju made from wheat, tapioca, barley and sweet potato.
4. Production Methods
These two alcohols also involve different production methods — while sake is fermented and brewed, soju is distilled.
As mentioned above, sake begins with rice. First, the brewers polish the rice, a process that removes the outer layers. After washing, soaking and steaming the polished rice, they add koji spores to break the starch down into sugar for the fermentation process. Finally, they press, filter, pasteurize and age the sake to prepare it for bottling.
Like sake brewing, making soju starts with fermentation. The distilling process begins with boiling the fermented rice in a tank below a distilling appliance. The longer the alcohol distills, the lower the alcohol content becomes.
Sake — an Overview
Sake is not the strongest alcohol, and since it’s brewed rather than distilled, it doesn’t qualify as a liquor. Despite its similar production process, sake’s 18% to 20% alcohol content far outstrips beer’s average of 5%, making a comparison between them unfitting. Nor is it rice “wine,” as many people claim.
In the world of alcoholic beverages, sake is in a category all its own.
Sake’s appearance is as varied as its flavors. While most sake you encounter will be clear and still, you may also come across unfiltered sake’s white, milky appearance or the festive bubbles of sparkling sake.
What Does It Taste Like?
Sake’s flavor depends on the type of rice it starts from and the level of polishing it undergoes. Most sake has a soft, clean taste that may remind you of a dry white wine, though some trend toward a slight sweetness. The flavors are delicate but varied, from floral to fruity to mushroom-like, nutty umami. You can also find flavored sake for a delicious balance of aromatic alcohol and sweet fruit.
How Do You Drink It?
Regardless of what you may have heard, you shouldn’t drink sake as a shot. Sake is a drink to sip slowly, the way you would a glass of wine. While you can drink it hot or cold, chilling high-quality sake will bring out its full flavor. If you have a lower-quality bottle, drinking it warm can help mask any flavor irregularities.
Soju — an Overview
Soju is a distilled spirit that originally used a rice base, like sake. The practice of using alternate starch sources began in 1965, when the Korean government banned soju makers from using rice. While that ban ended in 1990, distillers had already developed a new tradition of using starches like tapioca, barley and sweet potatoes.
The soju from those alternate starch sources with added water and sweeteners is now known as green-bottle soju. While green-bottle soju is still available, you can find many other types today.
What Does It Taste Like?
Though soju’s fresh, lightly sweet flavor is more predictable than sake’s, different base ingredients create subtle variations. With a milder and smoother version of vodka’s sharp astringency, its clean taste makes it an excellent pairing for fatty or spicy foods. Those looking for variety may want to sample a flavored soju, with a selection of flavors from pineapple to peach to yogurt.
How Do You Drink It?
You can enjoy soju in various cocktails, whether serving as a substitution or the primary ingredient. However, you’re most likely to drink it chilled and neat, often alongside food where its astringency lets it serve as a palate cleanser. From your second glass on, soju is a drink to enjoy slowly — unlike sake, it’s customary to drink your first glass of soju as a shot.
Factors to Consider Before Buying Sake or Soju
Whether sake or soju is better depends on your preferences and how you want to use it. Here are a few factors to consider along with the information above.
- How does the calorie count compare? When it comes to calories in sake versus soju, the two are relatively similar. Per 100 grams, sake has 134 calories, and soju has about 141.
- Can you substitute soju for sake? When cooking recipes that call for sake, the differences in taste, scent and alcohol content make soju a less-than-ideal substitute. However, shochu can stand in for sake in a pinch.
- How do you know if it’s high-quality? Sake quality largely depends on how much of the rice kernel remains after the polishing process. The lower the percentage, the higher the quality — basic Futsu-shu sake has a 70% rice-polishing ratio at most. You can identify premium soju — based on pre-1960s recipes — by its distinction as distilled soju rather than green-bottle diluted soju.
Find Your Favorite Flavors With Takara Sake
Now that you know a little more about the differences between sake and soju, you can use that knowledge to find the sake that suits you best. Whether you’re looking for something bubbly or still, sweet or dry, we have plenty of varieties for you. Browse our products to find something you want to try today!